Anthropological Quarterly 76.4 (2003) 807-812
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"Ethnography," writes Jamila Bargach in her introduction to Orphans of Islam "becomes...the art of evocation" (p. 13). And indeed, the ethnography that follows in this often beautifully written book does evoke, to great effect and at many levels. Most poignantly, Bargach summons the voices and experiences of illegitimate children, adoptive parents, state social workers, and others whose lives circulate in and around the social processes of child abandonment and adoption in Morocco. We are made privy to the ethnographer's excursions to court offices and hospital wards, her interviews with those abandoned as children, and her visits to the homes of adopting families. Whatever the analytical merits of this book and there are many Bargach remains true to her claim that the voices, stories and narratives she recounts are not "mere illustrations for ideas or arguments" but rather "the very essence of this work" (p. 12). Orphans of Islam is full of both human pathos, representing the tortured lives of those stigmatized as bastards in Morocco, and unapologetic politics insofar as that representation is at once a call for the recognition of hidden reality and a charge to redress it.
The idea of ethnography as evocation, as deployed by Bargach, appears to be aimed at two related issues. First is the matter of ethnographic closure [End Page 807] which the author wishes to complicate and which the topic cannot abide. As Bargach demonstrates, the Moroccan phenomena under investigation betray heterogeneity scarcely captured in the English notion of "adoption" as a relatively monolithic process. Rather, a variety of social and legal relationships, each with attendant cultural and linguistic signifiers, can be mobilized when in Morocco the care of a child is undertaken by adults other than the biological parents. What Bargach calls "customary adoption," for example, refers to arrangements by which a child is considered a "gift" from one family to another. This informal transaction neither alters the child's lineal identity nor necessitates a complete social break from the family of origin. Bargach is primarily concerned with two other general kinds of adoption - extralegal or secret adoption and legal guardianship (kafala) of a minor—both implicated more formally in state and Islamic law. The heterogeneity of actors, institutions, and places with which Bargach deals further complicates the singularity implied by rhetorical strategies of ethnographic closure. There is neither a single place nor an insular community represented in this book, and the minimal attention devoted by the Moroccan state to child abandonment and adoption is insufficient to create a singular national-bureaucratic space in which these phenomena operate. Moreover, Bargach shows that abandonment and adoption are situated in globalized spheres of missionary work, NGOs, and economic development. What we learn from the voices and cases which Bargach evoke is not that each represents abandonment and adoption in Morocco writ small but rather that a nexus of intersecting kinship ideologies, textual traditions, state institutions, and committed (inter)national actors constrain and construct the conditions of possibility in which abandonment and adoption unfold. Second, particular cases of abandonment and adoption are further meant to evoke insofar as they "throw chaos in established and accepted paradigms"(13). The normative paradigms under scrutiny here are those emerging from within both the theoretical terrain of academic anthropology and the cultural terrain of Moroccan society. In the first instance, Bargach forces us to reconsider Orientalist notions that, by virtue of orthodox Sunni prohibitions against the practice, adoption is absent in Islamic society. In debunking this claim with a rigorous ethnography of practical adoption within and beyond the scope of Moroccan/Islamic law, Bargach renders the important service of filling a gap in anthropological representations of Morocco. Abandonment and adoption, furthermore, threaten idealized and normative cultural models of such things as family, lineage, and blood-purity which have wide and enduring currency in contemporary Morocco. As Bargach deftly demonstrates, a variety of discourses, policies, laws and institutions [End Page 808] collude to...